Raising my head from the columns of figures on my laptop screen, I glared yet again in the direction of the noisy group at the front of the coffee shop. They either didn’t notice or more likely didn’t care. I reminded myself that I had a perfectly good office—a perfectly good, quiet
office—just a few blocks away, where I could be working instead.
Truth be told, working in silence in the confines of a stuffy office had never proved particularly appealing. I’d gotten into a routine of clearing my morning appointments and then sneaking away to come and work here in a quiet corner. My bosses didn’t mind as long as the work got done, which it invariably did. If there was one thing I could never be accused of being, it was a slacker.
Working at the coffee shop also had the added bonus of a never-ending supply of coffee that was a hell of a lot nicer than instant, and I didn’t have to make it—or rather my secretary didn’t have to make it. I’d been coming here for almost a year with absolutely no issues. Sure, it got busy sometimes, but I’d never had any real difficulty in blocking out disturbances before today.
The noisy group seemed to consist of both customers and staff. They were all clustered around a new member of the staff. Well, I presumed he was new, as I’d never seen him before. From what I could see, he was putting on some sort of one-man show while everyone hung on his every word and laughed uproariously at his bad jokes. Glaring in their direction again had as little impact as it had all the previous times.
I attempted to block out the “hilarity” and concentrate. Picking up my coffee cup to take a drink, I grimaced when I realized it was empty. The waitress, who’d served me earlier, was part of the raucous throng. She was obviously far too busy simpering at the new boy to notice an empty cup. What had started as mild irritation was gradually growing into intense frustration.
I did a quick mental inventory of other coffee shops in the area but they were all too something—too far, too dark, too bright…too busy. That was the reason I’d picked this place. Resigned to staying and putting up with the fuss, I turned my attention back to the computer screen. The rows of figures I’d been unsuccessfully trying to input for the last twenty minutes taunted me with my lack of progress. With a frustrated sigh, I got back to work.
Less than two minutes later, I had to stop again. Unbelievably, the commotion had escalated even more. The group seemed to be encouraging the new guy to do something. I watched in stunned disbelief out of the corner of my eye as the guy took his shoes and socks off. What the hell was he doing? When his shirt came off, I stopped pretending not to watch. He was now wearing nothing but a pair of jeans. Did the guy not know this was a public place? I scanned the coffee shop, expecting to see my look of disbelief reflected on the faces of the other customers. However, anyone not already gathered around the unfolding spectacle didn’t seem unduly bothered. Some were looking over, smiling; others were carrying on their conversations, completely oblivious. Two young girls, who looked about eighteen, were giggling and blushing and whispering to each other excitedly as they looked over at the half-naked guy. If I was honest, I could see the fascination. I surreptitiously eyed the guy’s torso. Toned was not the word.
He was muscular without being overly muscular, had a perfectly formed six-pack, and was almost hairless. His amazing physique became even harder to miss when he suddenly executed a perfect handstand and began walking expertly on his hands around the coffee shop. His biceps bulged as he managed to navigate the network of tables without bumping into them. One of the waitresses held what looked like a stopwatch and seemed to be timing how long he could keep the bizarre circus act up.
Customers clapped appreciatively, egging him on as he passed their tables. The teenage girls collapsed into a fit of nervous giggles the minute he got close to them. No way was I going to give him the satisfaction of admiring the disturbance he caused. As he passed my table, I kept my gaze resolutely fixed on the laptop screen in front of me. From the corner of my eye, I watched as he hand-walked his way back to the waiting crowd, who clapped and cheered him. He balanced perfectly still, as if to illustrate he could stay like that all day, before lowering his legs, with perfect control, back to a standing position as the group congratulated him.
To my relief the group gradually drifted apart, with customers returning to their tables and members of staff getting back to work. My coffee cup, however, remained empty. Any attempts to signal the waitress had proved completely futile. She seemed far more interested in chatting with another customer. From the way they kept examining each other’s hands, I inferred that it was a deep and meaningful conversation about nails, which was obviously far more important than providing the service I’d already paid for. I sighed with irritation. Another place was looking more attractive by the minute, one where the coffee in its name wasn’t false advertising.
“Numbers too hard for you?”
I glanced over my shoulder. Oh great!
The “performing” employee had appeared behind me as if from nowhere. Maybe he wanted to be a magician as well as a circus clown. I was relieved to see that he was back to being fully dressed. I let my gaze drift up toward his face, hoping to be able to take great delight in “great body, shame about the face,” but of course it wasn’t to be: blue-gray eyes, nice cheekbones, short brown stubbly hair, and clean shaven. His face wasn’t quite as gorgeous as his body, I thought spitefully. Pleasant. But not gorgeous. Realization dawned that I’d been staring without giving any response to his query. “Huh?”
He gestured toward the laptop. “The sigh. I presumed it was about your work.”
I turned back, not even trying to keep the irritation out of my voice. “My work is fine. I just expected, while I was working in a coffee
shop, that I would be able to do it with some coffee in my system.”
He leaned over my shoulder, so close I could feel his body heat, and peered at my empty cup. My nostrils filled with the scent of spicy cologne. “Do you want some more?”
“That would be nice,” I drawled sarcastically. “If you’re not too busy.”
If he noticed the sarcasm, which unless he was the perfect example of a male bimbo, all looks and no brain cells, he surely must have, he didn’t react to it. He simply sauntered off in the direction of the counter. I wondered what the chances of actually getting the refill were or whether, due to my attitude, he’d simply ignore my request. I supposed it would serve me right, remind me that I needed to be more polite.
I watched as he approached the waitress who’d served me earlier. He leaned in, interrupting her conversation to make some sort of comment, but I was too far away to make any inference about what he’d said. She barely raised her head in my direction before going back to her scintillating conversation. He picked up the coffeepot before returning to my table and filling my cup.
“Thank you,” I said, this time managing to keep the grudging note out of my voice.
“My pleasure,” he said and smiled. It was one of the most devastating smiles I’d ever been on the receiving end of. So much for his face only being pleasant. With one smile, it was transformed to drop-dead gorgeous. My gut did a complete flip in response. I quickly schooled my face to hide my ridiculous overreaction to a simple smile. He stood in place as if he had something else to say. “Sorry about before. I hope we weren’t stopping you from working.”
I gave real consideration to pretending I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about but decided against it. I regarded him coolly. “Actually, you did. It’s pretty hard to concentrate when it’s noisy. One of the reasons I come in here is that it’s usually quiet.”
He shuffled from foot to foot. I couldn’t decide whether he was socially awkward or simply struggling to stand still. “It’s my first week here.” He offered the information as if it provided a perfect explanation. Like when everyone started a new job, it was obligatory to strip and make an absolute fool of yourself. I waited. “They wanted to see my party trick; they bet me I couldn’t do it for longer than a minute.”
I arched an eyebrow, hoping to display a look of bored disinterest.
“I won!” he added. I almost smiled at the note of pride in his voice…almost, but I managed to stop myself.
“Yeah, well. Next time you’re at work”—I stressed the word “work,” hoping he’d take the hint—“and you feel the need to perform your party trick, do you think you could do it more quietly so I can get some of my
work done? Talking of work, I need to get on.” I pointedly turned my attention back to the laptop, effectively dismissing him.
Thirty seconds later, he still hadn’t moved. I stifled another sigh, steeling myself to become even ruder in order to get rid of him. The look of amusement on his face made me completely forget what I’d been going to say. “What?” I ground out between gritted teeth.
He shook his head, still looking amused. I had no idea what the hell was going through his head or what he was apparently finding quite so entertaining. Maybe he wasn’t quite all there. That would explain both his earlier inappropriate behaviour and the current strangeness.
“Nothing.” He aimed another jaw-dropping smile in my direction before finally walking away. He paused momentarily to call back over his shoulder, “Just give me a shout if you need anything, and I’ll come running.”
I made another attempt to concentrate on the spreadsheet open in front of me. The same spreadsheet I’d had open for about the last hour and had barely altered. Even the fresh injection of caffeine didn’t seem to improve my concentration or disposition. Before I’d even gotten to the bottom of the coffee, I conceded defeat. I quickly packed up and headed home.
* * * *
Insistent meowing met my arrival at home. I smiled fondly at the pair of cats begging for food—one black, one tabby. A friend had talked me into looking after them after her cat’s secret assignation with the randy tomcat down the road. It was meant to be temporary—just until she’d found good homes for them, she’d said. I had a sneaky suspicion she hadn’t even tried, and they’d been here ever since. The black male I’d named Thunder, and the tabby, who’d spent most of her time as a kitten darting in, around, and onto things as fast as she could, was Lightning. My ex-boyfriend had absolutely loathed them. He’d insisted on them being shut outside whenever he came round.
Thoughts of Christian had me checking my voice mail. No messages. I sighed; it had been almost six months since we’d split up. Christian had insisted we’d stay friends. If friends included never actually bothering to speak to each other, then I guessed we were indeed friends. After the split, I’d rung him a few times. It always followed the same pattern. We’d exchange a few meaningless pleasantries. Then he’d claim to be extremely busy, promising he’d call me back. I was still waiting for any of the calls to be returned.
Apart from a few first dates that led nowhere, set up by well-meaning friends, there had been no one since Christian. I’d been surprised, and, if I was completely honest, absolutely gutted when Christian had ended it. As far as I was concerned, it had come completely out of the blue. We’d been seeing each other for almost a year, and things were still as good, at least for me, as they’d been at the beginning. I’d even begun to picture us moving in together, had spent some time working out what I could do about Thunder and Lightning. To me, we’d seemed ideally suited: both into the same things, our working hours meshed well, and so what if our sex life didn’t exactly set the world on fire? There were far more important things in life than sex.
Christian’s explanation for the breakup was that we each had different expectations of where our relationship was going. At the time, I’d had no idea what that really meant, and it still wasn’t any clearer, six months down the line. I’d tried getting him to explain once but hadn’t managed to get a straight answer.
There had been a few other relationships prior to Christian but nothing serious. He was certainly the first guy I’d considered moving in with. All my previous boyfriends had borne some similarity to Christian, not in looks but certainly in personality: very cultured, good conversationalists, knowledgeable about good food and wine, smart dressers.
I walked into the kitchen, managing somehow not to trip over the cats as they wound themselves round and round my feet. Lightning jumped onto the kitchen counter, obviously deciding the extra height would prove more persuasive. I tickled her under the chin. “Who needs a boyfriend anyway when I’ve got you two?” She flicked her tail in my face and looked unimpressed. I gave in and fed them both, noticing the empty fridge as I got the cat food out. While we were dating, Christian had insisted on eating at the best restaurants, so I’d fallen out of the habit of shopping and for some reason just couldn’t seem to get back into it. I missed the restaurants almost as much as I missed him.
I shoved a frozen meal into the microwave and loosened my tie as I watched the time tick down until the food was cooked. Normally, I’d have at least been able to contemplate a successful day’s work, but thanks to the performing clown in the coffee shop I didn’t even have that today.
“What a dick!” I said aloud to no one in particular. A gorgeous dick with a beautiful smile and a fantastic body, whispered my subconscious. The microwave chimed, and I carried the cooked meal through to the living room, although “meal” was perhaps too strong a word for the mass of congealed cheese and meat the box had promised was lasagne. I flicked on the news, deciding to relax for an hour before tackling the afternoon’s unfinished work.